Board Cafe

Short enough to read over a cup of coffee, Board Café has everything you need and want to know to help you give and get the most out of board service.

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Ditch Your Board Composition Matrix

You know the board matrix: it has a list of skills and competencies that are "supposed" to be on the board, such as legal, marketing, HR, fundraising, finance. And typically there are also demographic qualities, such as gender, race, age. The board matrix then shows what boxes you presumably need to fill.

What's wrong here is that these board composition matrices focus our attention on what people are, rather than on what the organization needs board members to do.

Let's look at the three failures of board matrix approaches:

1. The skills trap: By identifying skills such as legal or finance, we often end up with the wrong kind of legal or financial professional . . .

And Now for a Different Type of Board Agenda

Board meeting time is deeply precious time and the fulcrum of board-staff opportunity or disappointment. Let's be smarter about how we use it. Bonus: board meeting cartoon at end of article.

Every third Tuesday, or maybe four Wednesdays a year, a nonprofit board meets and discusses a few topics in order. Here's a traditional board agenda:

Traditional Board Agenda

  1. Minutes approval
  2. Executive Director's report
  3. Program Director report
  4. Finance Committee report
  5. Nominating Committee report
  6. Adjourn

We feel bored just looking at it. The unintentional message: staff is going to talk at us for most of the time and nothing interesting is likely to happen.

Now let's look at doing it differently:

Board Support Position -- Sample Job Description

Our thanks to Meg Evans, who shared her job description as Coordinator of Board Relations at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital Foundation in Portland, Oregon. This version is edited from the original.


Full time, non-exempt

Position purpose:

To provide administrative support to the Board of Directors and associated committees. Function as the primary contact person for the Board and associated committees (Executive, Nominating, Finance).

Functions & Duties:

90% time: Administrative support and primary contact for the Board of Directors and associated committees as follows:

  • Organize and engineer meetings and events and contract with and supervise subcontractors
  • Create meeting(s) timeline, prepare and distribute meeting notification, correspondence, and agenda materials
  • Attend board and committee meetings and record minutes
  • Create and maintain board booklets
  • Establish working relationship with the Board of Directors President and committee chairs in verbal, written, and electronic correspondence
  • Maintain, as needed, both mailing & public relations lists of board and committees, including website updates
  • Monitor board budget
  • Create mailings, newsletters, and other materials for the board committee members
  • Mail, track, and follow up on the annual conflict of interest disclosure and create report for Executive Committee review

10% time: Provide back-up administrative support to the Executive Director as follows:

  • Schedule appointments and maintain Executive Director's calendar
  • Prepare and edit correspondence
  • Make travel arrangements

Minimum Qualifications

Knowledge, skills, and abilities required:

  • Self-motivated, focused, positive attitude, flexible, and proactive
  • Ability to multi-task and work in fast-paced, demanding environment
  • Strong organizational skills
  • Ability to deal with high-level outside influentials
  • Professional appearance and mannerisms
  • Ability to partner (collaborate) and work well with people at all levels
  • Ability to identify creative solutions that address time, budget, quality
  • Ability to develop, organize, and implement office procedures and systems
  • Ability to make decisions and maintain confidentiality
  • Ability to initiate and complete projects with minimal supervision
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Strong communication, composition, computer systems, prioritizing, and public relations skills
  • Board of director/trustee and executive-level contact on behalf of Executive Director
  • Advanced computer skills, Excel, Word, PowerPoint, Access
  • Word Processing: 75 wpm
  • Excellent spelling, grammar, and editing skills
  • Purchasing and negotiating skills
  • Record and compose minutes for board meetings

Education and/or experience:

  • 5 years experience in a high-level administrative support position
  • Minimum 3 years' experience working with a Board of Directors and/or board appointed committees
  • Minimum 2 years of college courses or equivalent experience

Working conditions:

  • Continual exposure to new tasks
  • Work environment is fast-paced where work interruptions may be frequent
  • Low tolerance for errors
  • Must work within specified budget
  • Multiple projects and timeframes occurring at once
  • Standard work week is 40 hours. There may be significant time constraints that create the need for a flexible schedule during certain time periods.
  • Travel to off-site locations within Portland area required (primarily OHSU campus)
  • Ability to move boxes and/or materials weighing up to 50 pounds

Scope of Work:

Decision making & influencing:

Decisions made:

  • Determine processes for completing job tasks
  • Prioritization of tasks within pre-determined schedule (unless urgency to particular task)
  • Orchestrate the logistics of events

Decisions referred to another:

  • All written board correspondence must be approved
  • All project work/research results must be reviewed
  • Non-standard decisions are referred to appropriate person (Executive Director and President)

Quantitative information which measures this job or indicates work volume:

  • Manage 3 separate lists of board members for publication purposes
  • Manage all correspondence (written, verbal, electronic) for current directors, emeritus directors, and current committees

Board meetings - quarterly:

  • Mail hard copy invitations and RSVP cards
  • Prepare and distribute meeting materials/booklets
  • Coordinates all logistics and preparations
  • Complete minutes following each meeting

Executive Committee meetings - quarterly:

  • Email meeting notification and track RSVPs for quorum
  • Prepare and distribute meeting materials
  • Coordinate all logistics and preparations
  • Complete minutes following each meeting

Nominating Committee meetings - quarterly:

Email meeting notification and track RSVPs for quorum

  • Update materials for distribution at meeting
  • Email agenda and minutes from last meeting
  • Coordinate all logistics and preparations
  • Complete minutes following each meeting

Finance & Audit Committee meetings - quarterly:

  • Email meeting notification and track RSVPs for quorum
  • Prepare and distribute meeting materials, including materials from external vendors
  • Coordinate all logistics and preparations
  • Complete minutes following each meeting
  • Mail the board of directors' roster at least once/year
  • Mail the request for updated photos and calendar of meetings annually


  • Board of Directors - Current, Emeritus, Honorary, and their staff members
  • Directors of Development and their Administrative Assistants
  • Department of Pediatrics Faculty and Administration
  • Vice Presidents and their Administrative Assistants
  • Department Managers which include parking, housekeeping, catering, educational communications, and delivery services
  • Staff
  • Vendors - caterers, other suppliers
  • Interface with the eExecutive Director's contacts which include senior management, attorneys, consultants, etc.

What's the Right Size for the Board?

Dear Blue Avocado: We have 18 board members, but we are wondering if we should try to keep such a large board.

At our upcoming board and senior staff retreat we will be discussing what size our board should be to be most effective. Help!!

By the way, we share credit with you for our great success in recruiting six new dynamic board members using your "Blue Ribbon Committee" method outlined at a session you led at a California Wellness conference a couple of years ago. Thank you! Signed, Nina Dooley, LINC Housing, Long Beach, California

Dear Nina and LINC Housing: You've hit upon the single most common question asked of experts on nonprofit boards: What's the right number of people to have on the board?

We're tempted to answer: "17. That's the average board size in the United States so it must be right."

Actually, the real answer is . . .

Organizing the Board to Support the Revenue Strategy

Instead of focusing only on how board members can raise individual donations (or not!), think more broadly (and effectively) about how board members can support the key aspects of your organization's business/revenue strategy:

In the quest for funds, there is no shortage of advice given to nonprofits. Start a social enterprise! Get corporate donations! Raffle a house! Perhaps the most frequent and consistent advice: focus the board on getting major gifts; in fact, recruit a strong fundraising board that can get major gifts.

But pursuing a new funding stream for which you may not have the right people and competencies already is often not the best place to start. Instead, we recommend that you see how you can boost and leverage the funding streams and people you already have in place.

Let's imagine a community center with five areas of . . .

Questions to Ask Prospective Board Members

A coffee date isn't a good idea only for beginning, tentative romances. A coffee or lunch date is an easy way to meet with individuals who may be good candidates for your nonprofit board. If you spend a few minutes ahead of time thinking about what to ask, you'll end up having a much better idea of whether it's a good match.

Frequently a first meeting with a prospective board member is set up as a lunch or coffee with a current board member and the executive director. It's a good idea to state clearly at the beginning that this is a "get-to-know-you" meeting and that no decisions need to be made before the meeting ends. Say that you'll follow up with a phone call to see if the individual is still interested and whether the board's nominating committee is still interested. If so, there may be another step or the nomination may go to the full board for a vote.

An alternative process is . . .

Executive Director Evaluation Survey Form

In the last issue of Blue Avocado, we discussed how board evaluations of executive directors (CEOs) are different from all other performance evaluations in the organization. These differences -- including the limited ability of board members to observe the executive -- are also among the reasons why 45% of executives have not had a review in the last year (CompassPoint's Daring to Lead 2011 study). In this article we draw on that discussion and on the submissions of dozens of Blue Avocado readers to propose a process and an evaluation instrument.

(At the end of this article is a link to download the survey form in Word to make it easy for you to modify.)

When we reviewed various the dozens of evaluation instruments sent in by Blue Avocado readers, we found that nearly all of them had these attributes in common:

  • Most reviews used a checklist form (rather than narrative)
  • Most focused on ED's actions and behaviors (rather than on organizational performance)
  • Most relied on input from board members only (rather than include input from others such as staff, funders, clients, art critics, etc.)

Although we feel that evaluations that are narrative, focus on organizational performance and contain elements of a 360 degree evaluation are better ways to evaluate executives, we also realize:

  • Without a checklist of some kind, the ED evaluation most likely won't take place . . .

Evaluating the Executive Director

Are you sighing just from having read the title of this article? Why does this topic make us all feel so tired?

Virtually everyone agrees that boards should conduct performance reviews of executive directors (EDs or CEOs). Even so, the predominant practice is neglect, and the predominant feeling is resentment. The neglect comes from the board: only 45% of nonprofit CEOs have reviews, reported CompassPoint's recent Daring to Lead 2011 study. Resentment comes from the executives, who are too often either resentful of the review process or even more likely and paradoxically, disgusted with the board for not conducting one.

And the agreement that ED evaluations should happen forestalls us from reflecting on why. In fact, in contrast to most performance appraisals, the key goal of ED evaluations is not performance improvement, but instead: a) the chance to reflect on the performance of the entire organization (not just the individual), and b) to spark a calibration of expectations and goals between the ED and the board.

Board evaluations of ED performance are radically different from any other type of performance review and must be thought of differently. For example:

  • While most staff reviews are between two individuals, the ED evaluation is a collective, committee review of an individual.
  • An ED review appropriately is more about the organization's achievements rather than about the individual's completion of a series of tasks.
  • Board members seldom (if ever) see the ED other than at board or committee meetings and are typically highly unfamiliar with either the building blocks or the nuances of the internal and external leadership roles that EDs play . . .

The Governance/Support Model for Nonprofit Boards

Board Cafe logoMuch of the confusion about board responsibilities is confusion between what the board does (as a body) and what individual board members should do. Most of the prescriptions for boards confuse the two, saying "The board should _____" without making the distinction. This straightforward model for boards has been embraced by thousands of boards across the United States:

There are two fundamentally different types of nonprofit board responsibility: governance and support. Depending on the responsibility, three types of switches occur:

  • Who's the boss

  • Whether the board is acting as a body or as individual board members

  • Who the board is representing

Let's look at both types of responsibility, and the three types of switches.

The governing role

On one hand, the board, acting as the representative of the public interest, governs the organization. In this role the board has several key responsibilities, including financial oversight, hiring/evaluating the executive director, and making the Big . . .

Get the Most Value from Your Audit

Audits are expensive in terms of money, staff time, and board attention. CPA Dennis Walsh tells us how to wring the most value from them:

An IRS tax audit has been described as an autopsy without the benefit of death. The financial statement audit -- done by an independent CPA, not the IRS -- can be seen by nonprofits as only slightly more appealing.

Many nonprofits have annual CPA audits, but the executive director and/or the board's finance or audit committee may be unsure whether they are getting the most out of the audit. A worthwhile question for the board to ask might be: "Are we getting the most out of this significant investment of money and time?"

We have developed two questionnaires to help you answer this question. The first looks at whether your auditor is doing a good job for you. The second questionnaire looks at whether your nonprofit is doing its part in utilizing the audit. (The questionnaires can also be downloaded as a Word document; see link at end of article.)

But first, . . .


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